I’ve been thinking for a while of revisiting the watershed essays I posted in 2008 and 2009, but I was pleasantly shocked earlier this year when I read an excellent piece by Victor Davis Hansen that already did it for me. Hansen’s essay “The Last Generation of the West and the Thin Strand of Civilization” covers almost exactly the same ground that I identified six years ago.
The fact that two men of different generations independently see the same writing on the wall cannot be insignificant.
Hansen cites examples for four of the five areas that worry me–the only missing item is, oddly, my number one. But more on that shortly.
Here are quotes from Hansen that correlate with my first four categories of American decline. His original has links to evidence–please read his essay and read his links.
#5: Government Size and Spending
“The fourth-century Greeks at the end pasted silver over their worthless bronze coins — “reds” being the protruding noses and hair of the portraiture that first appeared bronze-like, as the silver patina rubbed off. The bastardization of the currency fostered many books on Roman decline. More worthless money for more people was a sign of “crisis” — analogous to our own quantitative easing and $17 trillion in debt.
“Once more the theme here is not just that we are insolvent, but that we are so insolvent that it is now a thought-crime to talk of dissolution, bankruptness, and irresponsible spending — all damned as symptoms of “callousness” to the poor, proof of “social injustice”, and “obsessions” with deficits. The medicine of austerity always becomes worse than the disease of profligacy.”
#4: Individual Fiscal Irresponsibility
“Over 90 million Americans who could work are not working (the “non-institutionalized” over 16). What we take for granted — our electrical power, fuel, building materials, food, health care, and communications — all hinge on just 144 million getting up in the morning to produce what about 160-170 million others (the sick, the young, and the retired who need assistance along with the 90 million idle) consume.”
#3: Decline of Morality in the Media
“Does anyone believe that Kanye West, Miley Cyrus, and Lady Gaga are updates to Glenn Miller, jazz, Bob Dylan and the Beatles? Even in the bimbo mode, Marilyn Monroe had an aura that Ms. Kardashian and Ms. Hilton lack. Teens wearing bobby socks and jeans have transmogrified to strange creatures in our midst with head-to -oe tattoos and piercings as if we copied Papua New Guinea rather than it us. Why the superficial skin-deep desire to revert to the premodern? When I walk in some American malls and soak in the fashion, I am reminded of National Geographic tribal photos of the 1950s.”
#2: Decline of Literacy and Education
“The symptoms are terrifying: one trillion dollars in student debt (many of these loans accruing at higher than average interest rates and even before students have graduated); a small Eloi class of rarefied elites who teach little and write in runes that no one can decipher; a large Morlock class of part-timers and oppressed lecturers who subsidize the fat and waste of the tenured and administrative classes; graduates who are arrogant but ignorant, nursed on –studies ideology without the liberal arts foundations to back up their zeal; and a BA/BS brand that no longer ensures better-paying jobs, if any jobs at all.”
#1: Decline of the Traditional Family
Though Hansen doesn’t talk about my #1 concern, I just read something yesterday that crystallizes my fears with perfect horror:
Dog-crazy New York ladies told The Post that they aren’t surprised by the findings — and that they happily gave up diaper changes, temper tantrums and college funds for the easy affection of their doggy “child.”
“I’d rather have a dog over a kid,” declared Sara Foster, 30, a Chelsea equities trader who says her French bulldog, Maddie, brings her more joy than a child.
“It’s just less work and, honestly, I have more time to go out. You . . . don’t have to get a baby sitter.”
The federal data behind the report show that over the past seven years, the number of live births per 1,000 women between ages 15 and 29 in America has plunged 9 percent.
It’s not histrionic to lament the end of the world when all signs indicate that the world is actively trying to end itself. The future will be–and the present has already become–less independent, poorer, cruder, shallower, and (most scary of all) far smaller in size and stability than we were before.
The One Thing We Can Do
A recent series of essays appearing on a church website offer a profound defense for the one thing that cures and combats these five failures, the one thing that we’ve spent the better part of a century maligning and marginalizing, after which we wring our hands and wonder how things got so bad:
We need to recommit to practicing the basics of organized religion. Nothing “modern” has refuted, rescinded, or replaced them. There was never any good reason for total secularism beyond moral and intellectual immaturity.
These essays, like Dr. Hansen’s, are worth reading in their entirety; some salient selections:
Religion is worth upholding and honoring in our society. It has both tremendous capacity and responsibility to lift individuals, support communities and uphold the dignity of all God’s children. Faith and society, therefore, are intertwined in important ways. As Christian Pastor Rick Warren has affirmed, “A truly free society protects all faiths, and true faith protects a free society.” With mutual respect and civility we can all live, even flourish, with our deepest differences. As long as we continue to seek meaning, purpose and community, religion will remain not only relevant but an essential part of what it means to be human.
–from “The Relevance of Religion”
Institutions and ideas flourish when they fulfill real, lasting needs. Otherwise, they tend to die of natural causes. But religion has not died. Writing at a time, in the 1830s, when his home country of France was departing from religion, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that “the soul has needs that must be satisfied.” He has proven correct. Over the centuries, attempts to squelch these needs have failed. Religion provides the structure for this longing, and churches are the household of faith.
In this age of falling trust and social disintegration, a return to the sacred commitments of congregations will make our communities more cohesive. When the fabric of society begins to fray, religion with its layered threads of social capital can help bind it together.
The sacred relationships between kin and church, church and kin, tie us to the past, present and future. Such continuity helps us situate ourselves in this big universe. We find out who we are. The poet Wendell Berry gives expression to these aspirations: “The marriage of two lovers joins them to one another, to forebears, to descendants, to the community, to Heaven and earth. It is the fundamental connection without which nothing holds.”
Though this whole series clearly addresses my concerns, that last part most specifically addresses my final and greatest worry. Finance, the future, and the family itself cannot permanently flourish without faith.
The diagnosis for the five failures of America today is a longing for that which our societal soul now lacks–the meaning which animates action where it is now all but absent.
And that meaning still comes from where it has always come from: religion.
As we celebrate the Easter season again, let us all seriously consider that one realm of life that feeds all others:
America, we need to go back to church.